Talking Points: Summer 2023

News in Brief

Call of the Wild

Wild Carbon Sink

When we think of natural carbon sinks that can help address the climate crisis, forests, soils, and swamplands typically come to mind. But a new study says we have been ignoring another force that plays a key role in regulating the carbon cycle: wildlife.

Protecting or restoring key wildlife in native ecosystems would facilitate major carbon capture, according to a new study. Photo by Ralph Earlandson.

The paper outlines how “protecting and restoring wild animals and their functional roles can enhance natural carbon capture and storage.” Wild animals keep ecosystems healthy through foraging, nutrient deposition, disturbance, organic carbon deposition, and seed dispersal, according to the report, which was co-authored by 15 scientists from eight countries and published in Nature Climate Change in March. Healthy ecosystems, in turn, pull more carbon out of the atmosphere and store it.

“Wildlife species, throughout their interaction with the environment, are the missing link between biodiversity and climate,” Oswald Schmitz, a Yale University ecologist and lead author of the paper, said in a statement.

Researchers involved in the study examined nine wildlife categories — marine fish, whales, sharks, grey wolves, wildebeest, sea otters, musk oxen, African forest elephants, and American bison — and calculated how much more carbon could be taken up by ecosystems if these animals were protected or restored in their native ecosystems. They found that collectively the wildlife would facilitate the additional capture of 6.41 billion tons of carbon dioxide annually. This is 95 percent of the amount of carbon we need to remove from the air every year to meet the Paris Accord target of keeping global warming below the 1.5-degree Celsius threshold.

Allowing global marine fish stocks to rebound could have the greatest impact of all — the study estimated it would trap some 5.5 billion tons of carbon a year.

These numbers don’t even present the whole picture. The researchers didn’t have data to calculate the impact of conserving several other species that could be key players in an ecosystem’s carbon dynamic, including the African buffalo, white rhinos, pumas, apes, monkeys, and fruit bats.

The basic takeaway, as Schmitz says: “Rewilding is the best nature-based climate solution available to humankind.”


Using AI to Spread Lies

Right-wing groups have been pushing hard against renewable energy as of late, and against offshore wind turbines in particular. This push has, rather unusually, put conservatives squarely in the “Save the Whales” camp. Anti-renewables campaigners are now claiming that noise from offshore wind development is to blame for an unusual whale mortality event along the eastern seaboard, a claim that scientists and most conservationists dismiss as fearmongering.

It’s also solidified at least one conservative think tank’s position as a disinformation spreader: In March, the Texas Public Policy Foundation used its newsletter to send out an AI-generated image of a dead whale washed up on a beach with several offshore turbines in the background. The image appears real at first glance. But closer inspection reveals a few inconsistencies — think wavy turbine blades — as well as a watermark from DALL-E, a free AI system that generates digital images based on user descriptions. The newsletter failed to mention that the image was a digital illustration.

It feels a little sloppy for a well-funded think tank to send out such an image, watermark and all. But more than that, it is worrisome. As an article in Gizmodo noted, “What’s isolated to denier newsletters today may become viral images tomorrow.”


Towards Climate Rights

Hawaiians have a human right to a life-sustaining climate. That legal decision came in a March ruling by the state supreme court, the first in the United States to explicitly acknowledge the right to a stable climate is a basic human right.

The Hawaiian supreme court is the first in the US to explicitly acknowledge that the right to a stable climate is a basic human right. Photo by Ioreth_ni_Balor/Flickr.

The decision stems from a case over a power purchase agreement between a biomass power plant operator and Hawaiian Electric. Hawai‘i’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC) approved the agreement back in 2017 but reversed its decision in 2022 based on the environmental impact of the project. Specifically, the PUC determined that the biomass plant would generate significant greenhouse gas emissions, putting it at odds with the state’s goal to reach zero net emissions by 2045. ‘

The operator sued — and lost. The court found that, in rejecting the agreement, the PUC was upholding the right to a clean and healthy environment embedded in the state constitution.

“The reality is that yesterday’s good enough has become today’s unacceptable,” Supreme Court Justice Todd Eddins wrote in the opinion. Given the frequent “cross-fertilization in climate litigation,” as Sabin Center Global Climate Litigation Fellow Maria Antonia Tigre puts it, the decision could have implications for other cases, including in a youth-led case headed to trial this summer in Montana. But it could be some time before we know its full reach.

“Not many cases in the US ground climate obligations in human rights language,” Lisa Benjamin, a law professor at Lewis and Clark, told Bloomberg Law. “It’s unclear whether other states, with similar language in their state constitutions, will adopt this kind of interpretation, but it is certainly an exciting development.”

Meanwhile, this spring, the European Court of Human Rights heard its first three climate cases, each brought against European governments for their failure to act aggressively enough to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The judgements, which are still pending, will apply only to the countries named in the suits — Switzerland, France, and Portugal. But they could set important precedents regarding a human right to a stable climate around the world, including in the US.

As Pat Parenteau, an emeritus professor at Vermont Law and Graduate School, told E&E News, “You’re seeing law emerging in other parts of the world, and you’ve got to believe that US courts at some point are going to take note of that.”


Not Numb to Emissions

In March, Scotland became the first nation in the world to ban the use of desflurane, an anesthetic that packs a particularly potent greenhouse punch. Used by anesthesiologists to keep patients unconscious during surgery, the gas’s global warming potential is 2,500 times greater than that of carbon dioxide. By removing the drug from National Health Service (NHS) Scotland hospitals, the country will reduce greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to those produced by some 1,700 homes every year.

In a world first, Scotland has banned desflurane, an anesthetic with a global warming potential 2,500 times greater than that of carbon dioxide. Photo by Caiaimage-Sam Edwards.

“I realized in 2017 that the amount of desflurane we used in a typical day’s work as an anesthetist resulted in emissions equivalent to me driving 670 miles that day,” Kenneth Barker, an anesthetist and clinical lead for Scotland’s National Green Theatres Programme, told the BBC. “I decided to stop using it straight away and many fellow anesthetists have got on board.”

Anesthetics account for somewhere between 2 and 5 percent of NHS’s total carbon footprint. The move helps set Scotland on a path to attain net-zero emissions for anesthetic gases by 2027. It is also part of a broader program to establish greener operating rooms, or theatres, through the nation’s National Green Theatres Programme that was launched this spring.

While Scotland is the first country to ban the gas, which belongs to a class of chemicals with high warming potential known as hydrofluorocarbons, it won’t be the last. England plans to phase the gas out by 2024, and the European Union plans to ban it by 2026.

high voltage

Self-Driving Power-Drains

The world may be moving away from gas guzzlers, but power piggies — not so much. A new MIT study shows that at current rates a “global fleet” of autonomous vehicles would require as much energy as all the data centers of the world — which currently account for 0.3 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

“If we just keep the business-as-usual trends in decarbonization and the current rate of hardware efficiency improvements, it doesn’t seem like it is going to be enough to constrain the emissions from computing onboard autonomous vehicles,” Soumya Sudhakar, a graduate student in aeronautics and astronautics and lead author of the study, told MIT News. “This has the potential to become an enormous problem. But if we get ahead of it, we could design more efficient autonomous vehicles that have a smaller carbon footprint from the start.”

Lower-energy solutions for putting one billion deep-neural-network vehicles on the roads include more efficient builds for hardware and better algorithms that require less software. But more efficient programs could be less safe.

Autonomous vehicle researchers not only have to consider the clear-cut limits of math and materials, but also squishier questions around human behavior. Will new technologies put more vehicles on the road, as people are able to multitask while driving? Will it keep older drivers on the road longer? Or put more younger drivers there sooner? Unfortunately, there’s no modeling yet for the human X factor.


Talking Greens

Plants aren’t known for being noisy. Sure, the wind may rustle leaves, or a branch may creak, but for the most part, the greenery around us seems mostly silent. Turns out, it isn’t.

Stressed plants emit more frequent sounds than non-stressed ones, according to new research. Photo by Crystal Jo.

According to a study published in March in Cell, plants make plenty of noise, particularly when stressed. Though not audible to the human ear, thirsty and recently trimmed plants emit up to 35 sounds per hour. Well-watered and uncut plants aren’t nearly as noisy, making an average of one sound per hour. When the ultrasonic sounds are pitched down so that humans can hear them, as well as condensed, they sound “a bit like popcorn — very short clicks,” Lilach Hadany, one of the study authors, said in a statement. Their findings build on previous research confirming that plants vibrate while under stress.

The researchers, based at Tel-Aviv University, listened in on the vegetable kingdom by placing tomato and tobacco plants in miked up soundproof boxes and found that plants make distinct sounds depending on the type of stress they face. Specifically, parched plants made different sounds than cut ones. Preliminary findings from other tests suggest that other plant varieties — including wheat, grapes, corn, and cacti — also cry out more frequently when stressed.

The researchers don’t yet know exactly how the plants “talk,” but they suspect it has something to do with air bubbles passing through their xylem, the tissue that moves water from the roots to stems and leaves. Whatever their source, the plant sounds, pitched at 20 to 100 kilohertz, are likely audible to some animals, including bats, mice, and moths. Hadany and her team are now turning their attention to how such animals, as well as other plants, might respond to the noise.

“This is exciting and thought-provoking: plants that are vocal about their stress level — who’d have thought,” Marc Holderied, a professor of sensory biology at Bristol University who was not involved with the study, told The Guardian. “While this appears to be a byproduct of physiological stress rather than intentional communication, nothing can stop nearby organisms from trying to exploit that information.”


A Slaver’s Namesake

The National Audubon Society (NAS) announced in March it will not change its name, despite calls for the organization to distance itself from its slave-owner namesake. Running contrary to the decisions of some of its own chapters, the Audubon’s board of directors made the announcement following a review process that sought to reckon with the “complexity of John James Audubon’s legacy” and the impact of that legacy on the mission of the organization. The board announced a $25 million fund for the expansion of its diversity efforts alongside its decision.

Iillustration by John James Audubon.

“North America has lost three billion birds since 1970,” the board said in a statement. “Birds act as early-warning systems about the health of our planet, and they are telling us that birds — and our planet — are in crisis. Based on the critical threats to birds that NAS must urgently address and the need to remain a non-partisan force for conservation, the board determined that retaining the name would enable NAS to direct key resources and focus towards enacting the organization’s mission.”

The decision prompted the resignation of at least three board members and was met with criticism from Audubon’s employee union, which changed its own name in February. “Their decision to double down on celebrating a white supremacist and to continue to brand our good work with his name actively inflicts harm on marginalized communities,” the Bird Union, formerly known as Audubon for All, said in a statement, “including members of our union who for too long have been excluded from the environmental movement.”

Audubon, who famously produced The Birds of America, bought and sold slaves and supported the US institution of slavery. National chapters in Chicago, Portland, New York, and Seattle have decided to drop his name.


Worldwide Waste

About one third of the world’s waste is produced by high-income countries, which account for just 16 percent of the planet’s population. Much of this comes from the use of plastics, whose toxic wastes are frequently shipped to lower-income countries for disposal. The amount of plastic being sent abroad is more than 40 percent greater than the typical estimates, and even that number fails to reflect all the places plastic ends up, according to a study led by the International Pollutants Elimination Network IPEN, which was published in March.

The amount of plastic high-income countries are shipping to low-income ones is more than 40 percent higher than previously estimated, researchers say. Photo by Tom Fisk /

IPEN and other researchers found that many plastics are not properly reported under a United Nations trade reporting scheme, which fails to account for all the places plastics are used, such as in textiles, rubber, or e-waste. That means high-income countries are not accurately calculating the impact of their shipments to low-income countries. Trash exports to low-income countries create massive pile-ups of toxic waste, while also hampering those countries’ abilities to handle their own waste sustainably.

“This means that neither the waste generated within the country nor the imported waste can be managed in an environmentally sound manner, leading to large volumes of wastes ending up being dumped, left in landfills, or burned,” the authors wrote. Not only should plastics be reduced, the authors conclude, but the chemicals that go into them need to be cleaned up.

Meanwhile, waste trade globally continues to rise, along with a growing amount of plastic. At this rate, by 2050 humans will have accumulated 26 billion metric tons of plastic.


Partial Protection from PFAS

In March, the US Environmental Protection Agency set legal drinking water limits for six of the most toxic “forever chemicals,” also known as PFAS. Polyfluoroalkyl substances are highly-toxic chemical compounds frequently used in consumer products and in industrial settings that have widely contaminated the planet. They have been linked to cancer, reproductive and immune system harm in humans and other living beings.

While it’s good news that these six PFAS will now be federally regulated, there are many other types of these toxic chemicals that did not receive the same scrutiny. The Natural Resources Defense Council recently sampled drinking water from public water systems and private wells across 16 states and found 12 types of PFAS that are not included under the EPA rules. This is cause for concern, the group said, because it means strict legislation over PFAS remains in the hands of individual states. Twenty-six US states do not regulate PFAS in drinking water, according to analysis by the PFAS Exchange, a collaboration between environmental and health organizations.

“EPA’s newly proposed standards only focus on six PFAS chemicals, which means many communities in our study, such as here in Fairbanks, Alaska, would not qualify for drinking water protections despite expanded testing showing substantial levels of contamination,” Pam Miller, founder of Alaska Community Action on Toxics, said in a statement. “How is the government going to ensure our health and safety when their testing methods are so inadequate?”


Troubled Waters

Up until recently, deep sea mining had been theoretical. Yes, there was growing interest in mining metals like cobalt, copper, and nickel that are abundant on the seafloor, particularly given growing demand for renewable-energy technologies. But mining companies weren’t ready to take the plunge, and the International Seabed Authority (ISA), the organization tasked with regulating all mineral-related activities in international waters and protecting the marine environment, wasn’t accepting mining applications. That’s no longer the case.

This International Seabed Authority will start accepting deep-sea metal mining applications this summer, despite how little we understand about deep sea ecosystems. Photo by Xinhua / Alamy.

Beginning July 9, the ISA is legally required to start accepting applications for deep-sea mining. But in March, it failed to set any environmental regulations to govern the budding industry, the last chance it had to do so before summer. This failure leaves the ISA, and prospective mining companies, in murky water — and our oceans in a vulnerable position.

“Governments are recklessly leaving the backdoor open for deep sea mining to sneak in and start operating later this year,” Louisa Casson, a senior campaigner with Greenpeace International’s Stop Deep Sea Mining campaign, said in a statement, adding that the ISA has “kicked the can down the road, leaving us all in jeopardy from this dangerous industry.”

Established under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the ISA had been slowly plugging away on mining regulations, when, in 2021, the island nation of Nauru triggered a two-year rule under the Law of the Sea treaty. That rule required the ISA to either establish a mining code by the summer of 2023 or start accepting applications without one. (The ISA requires private contractors to have national sponsorship for their mining applications, and Nauru is sponsoring one such eager company.)

While that isn’t ideal, it’s still unclear what will happen with submitted applications. While the ISA is required to accept applications, it is not required to approve them, and it may not even be required to review them — the law is hazy.

Adding more uncertainty to the situation is the fact that the 167 ISA member-states are divided over whether deep sea mining should even be on the table given how little we understand about deep sea ecosystems. As Bloomberg reported, countries including Chile, Germany, and Palau are advocating for a pause on all mining endeavors given the lack of sufficient scientific understanding, while others like Brazil, the Netherlands, and Singapore have signaled their disapproval of mining in the absence of strong regulations.

“We reiterate today, conditions don’t exist for deep sea exploitation to be carried out,” Marcelino Miranda, a delegate for Mexico, told the ISA Council during its March meeting.

Around the World

Methane Super-emitters

The world has a major methane problem. A particularly potent greenhouse gas with a short-term warming impact 80 times greater than carbon dioxide, methane emissions have been on the rise at a time when we urgently need to cut emissions.

Human-caused methane emissions stem primarily from the oil and gas industry, the agricultural sector (think cow burps and manure), and waste. The rise can be attributed to an increase in leaks at fossil fuel fields, as well as to an unfortunate feedback loop in which increasing temperatures result in greater methane production by microbes. While addressing that feedback loop may be complicated, addressing leaky oil and gas equipment is both straightforward and cost-effective. And where better to start than with some of the 1,000-plus methane “super-emitter” sites identified through satellite data by Kayrros, an energy and environmental geoanalytics company.

As reported by The Guardian, these 1,000 sites released vast amounts of methane into the atmosphere in 2022, some over the course of just a few hours, others over a period of several months. While Kayrros says it isn’t possible to pin down the duration of many of the leaks, these sites had the highest recorded leak rates, measured in tons of methane per hour. More than half the sites were oil and gas fields, 105 were coalmines, and 340 were waste sites, like landfills. (The infrared technology used to detect methane is less reliable when it comes to underwater leaks like that from the Nord Stream natural gas pipeline explosions under the Baltic Sea last year, which the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has said likely represents the biggest single methane release ever.)

“Methane acceleration is perhaps the largest factor challenging our Paris agreement goals,” Euan Nisbet, a professor at Royal Holloway, University of London in the UK, told The Guardian. “So removing the super-emitters is a no-brainer to slow the rise — you get a lot of bang for your buck.”

Kayrros may be part of the solution. The company is partnering with the UNEP to help with its methane detection and action initiative, which will flag leaks and encourage countries to plug them.

The following countries were among those with the highest leak rate and greatest number of super-emitter events in 2022. Whether or not these nations act swiftly to stem such emissions could be a major determinant of just how much our planet warms.

graphic depicting the continents of the Earth

1 Turkmenistan

The methane leak with the highest flow rate in 2022 occurred in August in Turkmenistan, when a leak near a major pipeline on the country’s Caspian coast released 427 tons of methane an hour, equivalent to the emissions rate from running 67 million cars. Turkmenistan also holds the unfortunate distinction of having the most super-emitter events of any country in 2022, a total of 184. Seventy of these events were among the top 100 events by flow rate globally. The country’s fossil fuel industry is shrouded in quite a bit of mystery under the current dictatorship, but experts believe leaks could be related to ageing equipment or to intentional methane venting.

2 United States

With 154, the United States had the third highest number of super-emitter events of any country in 2022, and the second most from oil and gas extraction. The biggest measured by flow rate was a leak outside San Antonio, Texas, that released 147 tons of methane per hour. The second biggest was a 13-day leak at a Pennsylvania gas-storage facility, which had an initial flow rate of 120 tons of methane per hour and a total planet-heating footprint equivalent to that of running 360,000 cars for a year. The good news is that the US is starting to crack down on these types of leaks. From 2024, companies will be fined $900 per ton of leaked methane. By 2026, they will be charged $1,500 a ton. At that rate, the Pennsylvania leak would have cost the company upwards of $64 million.

3 India

Though India had the second highest number of super-emitter events in 2022, unlike the other top offenders, the vast majority of these leaks were associated with waste sites. Globally, some 20 percent of human-caused methane emissions come from dumps. But these emissions are hard to address. While research suggests that 50 percent of methane released from fossil fuel sites could be eliminated at basically no cost, the same is true for only 16 percent of waste-related emissions.

4 Iraq

In 2022, the second largest methane leak globally occurred in Iraq. Believed to be from an oil refinery near Basra, the leak released 356 tons of methane an hour. With a total of seven, Iraq was 15th overall with respect to super-emitter events.

5 Russia

Behind just Turkmenistan and the United States, Russia had the third highest number of fossil fuel super-emitter events. (Combined, the three countries account for the vast majority of fossil fuel-related super-emitter events.) Most of Russia’s events took place at oil and gas sites, and the remainder at coalmines. While 150 countries have joined a global pledge to cut human-caused methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030, Russia is not one of them. Neither are several other top super-emitter countries, including Turkmenistan, China, and India.


Trade Ban for Vaquita

The world’s smallest cetacean has been barely hanging on in its last refuge, and the Mexican government isn’t doing nearly enough to help it, the secretariat to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) said in March, announcing trade sanctions against the country for its failure to prevent illegal gillnet fishing that endangers vaquitas.

Fishers illegally catch totoaba in a vaquita refuge in the Sea of Cortez in 2019. CITES announced trade sanctions against Mexico in March for its failure to prevent illegal gillnet fishing that endangers the nearly-extinct porpoise. Photo by Tim Grenard / Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

Biologists estimate there may be only 6 to 20 vaquitas remaining in the world. Despite such low numbers, they say, the species can survive if we stop killing them.

The vaquitas’ habitat in the Gulf of Mexico was designated a no-commercial-fishing zone in 2005, but illegal gillnet fishing persists in the area. Vaquitas become entangled in these nets, as well, and drown. Many fishermen here are after totoaba, an endangered giant sea bass whose swim bladders are coveted in China, where they’re believed to enhance fertility and benefit general health. CITES prohibits international commercial trade of both the vaquita and totoaba, yet poaching and trafficking of totoaba has gone largely unchecked for years.

Although the Mexican government claims to be committed to vaquita conservation, a report last year by the International Union for Conservation of Nature found that the country continued to allow illegal fishing in the vaquita’s habitat, including in the Zero Tolerance Area, where only enforcement and research vessels are permitted.

The CITES sanctions mean Mexico will no longer be able to export millions of dollars of wildlife products to most nations around the globe. There are nearly 3,150 Mexican animals and plants listed under CITES, and many of these species are exported. These include lucrative products such as crocodile leather, mahogany, tarantulas, pet reptiles, cacti, and other plants.

“While no one relishes economically painful sanctions, all other efforts to push Mexico to save the vaquita haven’t been enough,” Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “The strongest measures possible are needed to wake up the Mexican government and prompt it to finally save this tiny porpoise from extinction.”

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